Africa

The artistic paradox of Ethiopia’s water woes


Renowned Ethiopian artist Aida Muluneh has taken a series of striking images to depict the harsh life of many women in rural areas – especially their daily efforts to obtain clean water for their families.

Her Water Life series, which was commissioned by the charity WaterAid, will be on display at London’s Somerset House from 24 September.

“We cannot refute that it is mainly women who bear responsibility for collecting water, a burden that has great consequences for our future and the development of our nation,” Muluneh said.

Almost 40% of Ethiopians do not have clean water close to their homes, compared to the global average of 10%, according to Water Aid.

Muluneh shot some of the photos in a studio while others were staged in the extreme landscape of one of the hottest and driest places on earth, Ethiopia’s northern Afar region.


This image shows that a woman’s work never ends, and demands a great deal of strength.

The traditional coffee pot on the ground, called a “jebena” in Ethiopia’s Amharic language, is symbolic of a woman’s traditional role, while the broom highlights her responsibility for keeping the house in order.

The woman on the right symbolizes that she has to take care of chores inside and outside the house, and the window to the left her quest for a better future.


This piece reflects the strength of women who have to endure much to ensure that their families have water to drink and food to eat every day.

The jerry cans are tied to a rope to reflect the shackles of carrying water while the woman in red has a clay water pot called an “insera” tied to her back to reflect the burden that comes with it.

“I assume there must be a glimpse of a thought that she has in the hopes that a better tomorrow will come for those she is caring for,” Muluneh says.


This image deals with the impact that water has on sanitation and health.

The lack of water means people do not have proper bathrooms, creating a huge health risk in communities.

“I wanted to express this point through the structure that we built.

“The red door has been placed higher to express the lack of access and to emphasise the point,” Muluneh says.


In this image, the prop of a traditional wooden bed expresses the reality that people in rural areas lie in this type of bed when they are ill, and may even be carried to a clinic for treatment.

The mask symbolizes the bacteria and diseases contracted from drinking contaminated water.

“While developing this concept, I have always questioned the many diseases that arise from the lack of clean water.

“I remember working in the southern regions of Ethiopia and hearing an old man speak about how the simple fact of getting a water well has reduced the number of deaths and illness in his community,” Muluneh says.


This shot focuses on girls – especially how the lack of water and bathrooms in schools affects their education.

“The fact that most girls don’t attend school when they are menstruating is a major hindrance on the progress of women in our society,” Muluneh says.

In this piece, the moon is based on a woman’s monthly cycle, the red wings illustrate her freedom and strength but also the fact that she cannot achieve her full potential because she is shackled by the natural occurrence of menstruation.

“In a sense, it is like a caged bird that cannot fly but is grounded.

“The striped floor is symbolic of the road to destiny in which our path to success is in front of us but we must take the step forward,” Muluneh says.


Photographed on the salt lakes of Dallol in northern Ethiopia, this image is intended to show that Ethiopia has huge water reserves underground, but many people still do have access to clean water.

“In a sense I wanted to express that we are walking on lands with water but due to the limited irrigation of the water, we are living in a paradox,” Muluneh says.


And finally in this image, the white bottles symbolize clean water while those marked with red dots address the relationship between water and life (blood).

“The access to clean water might be a norm for those living in the city while the same reality is not a privilege in rural regions,” Muluneh says.

Al images are subject to copyright

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